Car tags
by DAVID DAVIS Managing Editor
Sep 29, 2013 | 796 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
License Plates
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Banner photo, DAVID DAVIS Margaret and David Walker of Cookeville show a 1955 specialty tag they restored. David did the metal work and painted the background. Margaret painted the lettering and border by hand. East Tennessee Auto PL8S meet Saturday in the exhibit hall at Tri-State Exhibition Center.
Collecting license plates is not usually a joint venture shared by husbands and wives in the beginning. It was no different for Eddy and Doris Smith of Maryville.

The couple was among the collectors at the 24th annual East Tennessee Auto PL8S meet Saturday in the exhibit hall at Tri-State Exhibition Center.

Eddy will turn 69 in April and that same month the couple will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

Over the 20 years Eddy has been “fooling with it,” he has collected Tennessee plates that covers 98 years from the first state issued tags in 1915 through 2013. His collection began reselling plates for about 15 years.

What did Doris think about his collection in the beginning? He answered by pointing to his head and making a circular motion with his forefinger.

“The first good deal I bought, I had them in the garage and she said she was going to pray for my sanity. I called this other guy and he came and bought the whole group except the few that I had put up.

“From that day, she never said anything else. She didn’t think they would sell, but license plates will sell,” he said.

Eddy’s hobby began through his connection with antique cars that began sometime after returning home from Vietnam where he served in the Air Force as crew chief on a C-130.

“We kept our aircraft in Taiwan and flew the missions in Vietnam. If we kept them in Vietnam, they could be damaged in mortar attacks,” he said. “We hauled troops, cargo, a lot produce in to the troops.”

They landed to load and unload the planes. Some of the runways were metal “they were like big tracks,” he said. “The pilots could lay a C-130 in there pretty good.”

He enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 23 to avoid the draft and served from November 1966 to November 1970.

“I decided I wanted to go into the Air Force instead of the Army,” he said. “I still got drafted after I went over there. My wife asked them if they could wait until I got back from Vietnam before they draft me.”

Eddy got into license plates because he wanted tags for a 1928 Model A sedan. It was fully restored when he bought it, but he did restore his next car, a 1929 Model A.

“I had a 1928 Roadster that was nice,” he said. “It was an AACA Senior Car, so it was very nice.”

Like many other antique car enthusiasts, he later got into muscle cars and still has a 1970 Mustang Boss.

He said when he found the plates he needed for his cars, license plate collectors wanted to sell their entire collections.

“I’d go out and collectors would want to sell the whole bunch. They didn’t want to sell just the plates I needed, so I ended up with all these plates,” he said. “I had to find a way to sell them and from there I started collecting them. I’ve got a nice run of all Tennessee plates from the first one to 2013.”

David and Margaret Walker of Cookeville are a husband and wife team who got into license plates about the time they retired.

“Our health was getting bad, so we got into this as a hobby and it just started growing. We paint about every day,” David said.

He restores the plates and paints the background. Margaret sits at the kitchen table where she does the lettering and borders by freehand.

David said Tennessee first required license plates in 1915. Before then, motorists bought “pre-state plates.” The car owner was issued a number that was painted onto wood, leather or porcelain plates could be ordered through a catalog.

In 1939, the state began identifying counties by numbers based on population. Shelby County was the most populous, but Davidson County was the seat of state government and was given the prefix of No. 1, Shelby County was No. 2, Knox County was No. 3 and Hamilton County was No. 4.

“Memphis was a bigger town and they started complaining so in 1957, Memphis went to No. 1 and Nashville went to No. 2,” he said. “If the population changed, the prefix was changed.”

A 1915 Tennessee plate sells for up to $8,000.

During World War II, the state asked people to return their 1941 plates when they were issued new plates in 1942. In 1943, tabs (stickers) were issued instead of plates to conserve metal. “C” tabs were for light automobiles, “D” was for heavy cars such as Buicks and Cadillacs and “F-1” for half-ton pickups.

The Walkers have been collecting about 12 years.

“We just started collecting some plates and decided we’d paint some. She is pretty good at lettering and soon, everybody wanted us to restore their plates,” he said. “We restore a lot of plates for people around Knoxville.”

Every Tennessee collector knows Milner Carden of Tullahoma, the possessor of a run of 1951 plates from every county in the state. His collection of more than 16,000 plates includes pre-state plates to 2013, and extremely rare motorcycle plates that are “awful, awful expensive.”

Carden said the 1915 plates were first issued July 1 for six months. There were about 3,300 pairs made that year.

“I’ve been in every county in the state and most every courthouse in the state,” he said. “We know of 58 or 59 (from 1915) in the state,” he said. “There are probably more out there. They are pretty high-dollar stuff.

He began collecting 16 years ago.

“My daddy had them on the car shed from 1922 up. I decided to get those older ones from 1922 and ended up spending a quarter-million dollars,” he said. He keeps the collection in a building he built “that’s nicer than my house.”